Inside the Artistry of Olivia Peebles, Production Designer of Sundance 2024 Drama 'Exhibiting Forgiveness

Published on in Exclusive Interviews

Delving into the intricate world of the Sundance drama film Exhibiting Forgiveness, production designer Olivia Peebles reveals the creative process behind crafting the visual landscape of Tarrell's journey. From the emotional depths of familial reconciliation to the vibrant backdrop of artistic expression, Peebles shares her insights into bringing writer-director Titus Kaphar's semi-autobiographical narrative to life.

Drawing inspiration from Kaphar's personal spaces and artistic vision, Peebles intricately weaves together earthy tones and architectural elements to evoke a poignant sense of authenticity and contrast within the film's sets. Join us as we uncover the artistry and intention behind each meticulously crafted detail in Exhibiting Forgiveness.

PH: Olivia, Exhibiting Forgiveness explores the complexities of forgiveness and forgetting. How did the film's theme and narrative influence your approach as a production designer, particularly in creating the visual elements that enhance the storytelling?

Olivia Peebles: Exhibiting Forgiveness tells a specific story, but its themes are universal. The director Titus uses Tarrell’s experiences to pull the viewer into a web of human tensions we all know in some way, and puts a question to the viewer: What does it mean to forgive? For Tarrell, this question begs others: What does it mean to be a father? A son? How do we process trauma while protecting our loved ones? How do we move beyond trauma? Can we move beyond trauma? The distillation of these questions into one story reveals a shared truth about human vulnerability.

After I finished the script, it would not leave me. I wanted to be a part of telling this story with Titus because there is so much power in it. The core of the design was to contextualize these characters within their worlds and within greater reality. I wanted the sets to be natural backdrops for each character—so natural that, ideally, they were nearly invisible. The characters in Exhibiting Forgiveness are written with such a rawness that I wanted their surroundings to be almost continuations of their personalities. 

To this end, Titus, the actors, my other collaborators and I made decisions together with intentionality, focusing on color and on spatial guidelines. We started with broader concepts based on character, questioning what certain types of spaces represent about the person who inhabits them. How do spaces make us feel when we’re in them? How does a body move and exist within them? As we got deeper into location scouting, the design concepts naturally unfolded into realities. 

The story is the true design of this film. My approach was to be an observer and orchestrator of sharing what was already there in the script.

PH: Your collaboration with writer-director Titus Kaphar involved a deep dive into his personal spaces and art collection. Can you share how this immersion in Titus's world influenced your design choices for the film, especially in capturing the essence of his semi-autobiographical story?

Olivia Peebles: First of all, I have to say that there are few feelings comparable to that of being welcomed into Titus’ world. The man is magnetic. He has a way of speaking, of sharing, of including that is stunningly honest. The honesty in his communication makes you never want to leave its glow and its warmth. He is an inquisitive, critical thinker who is constantly absorbing, processing, and questioning. And while he has strong, well-informed opinions, he is genuinely excited to hear others’ opinions and, when appropriate, weave those perspectives into his own point of view. This openness and inclusion is rare, and I see now that it’s a kind of vulnerability that I find incredibly moving. In retrospect, I think Titus’ vulnerability created a matching vulnerability and openness in me, and that set the tone of our work together. We trusted each other and each other’s paths toward inviting the audience inward: inside Tarrell, inside the story, inside themselves.

His studio, his art, and his work at NXHVN all became pieces of the story for me. I share a love of painting and a background in fine arts so entering his studio and working with his studio team stimulated me in a way that is rare to experience on a film. Immersion into Titus’ artistic world and sensibility transcended filmmaking for me. Being in the presence of art, absorbing that kind of human creation, is innately intertwined with the story. Those experiences were really influential for me throughout production.  

Practically speaking, Titus and I looked at a lot of images together. He put together a small reel for me from his childhood neighborhood, shared family photos and shared stories. It was essential that I consider all of it, but equally important that I do my own research and show Titus my own inspiration. The story is semi-autobiographical, of course, but ultimately, it’s Tarrell Rodin’s story, not Titus Kaphar’s. 

We started a Google doc of questions and ideas with Titus, costume designer Deirdra Govan, set decorator Eric Tumolo, art director Zebah Pinkham, and prop master Judy Posey. In contributing to this doc, we formed a kind of hive mind. Hours in the scout van dissecting character and story with Titus, producer Derek Cianfrance, and cinematographer Lachlan Milne were also essential. Plus, neither Titus nor I shied away from sharing ideas via text at any hour of the day, any day of the week. 

I think that through sharing visuals and spending time together learning each other’s languages, we established trust in each other. Often, we were able to feel the same thing when we walked into spaces, sometimes sharing an understanding without even saying a word. Our shared language informed my design, which was ultimately the canvas for Titus to paint his story upon.

PH: Earthy tones like green and brown were chosen for Tarrell’s character. Can you elaborate on the symbolism behind these color choices and how they contribute to the character's journey and the overall visual tone of the film? 

Olivia Peebles: Yes, I was drawn to warm earth tones for Tarrell from the beginning. It started with the color palette of Tarrell and Aisha’s house and grew into the color green being a pretty direct representation of Tarrell throughout the film. I wanted to embrace the energy of the family and the home Tarrell and Aisha had built for themselves. We looked at greens, raw umber, glowy saffron, rust and terracotta: all colors that feel warm and connected to nature. We wanted the home to be an intentional, verdant oasis to foment creativity and safely grow a family. 

Titus, Deirdra and I also decided early on that Joyce would be represented by bold and bright reds and yellow (despite her favorite color being a sort of periwinkle/cornflower blue, which we also see in her spaces in the set dressing). I was really enthusiastic about red standing for Joyce and green standing for Tarrell because red and green are complementary colors sitting opposite one another on the color wheel. The two colors together create a visual tension but ultimately are harmonious and balanced. Deirdra brought the yellow in with Joyce’s wardrobe—a color that sits between red and green in the color wheel—which relaxes some of the polarizing pull of the reds and greens. 

As a location-based film with limited resources, scouting for locations that would fit our design needs without much scenic/construction work was essential, and our location manager, Philip Prince, really pulled through for us such that we didn’t have to compromise on our color strategy. One of the first locations we locked was Tarrell and Aisha’s house. The design of this house, built by architect Barry Poskanzer, centers around one curved wall that spans the length of the entire home, painted in a custom green that echoes the nature outside. The deeper into scouting we got, the more these color throughlines serendipitously appeared. For example, the motel near Joyce’s house—which enters the film when Joyce and Tarrell unite in an attempt to co-navigate their stories—was already equipped with green walls and red curtains. Joyce’s house already happened to have red walls with one green room, which is indicative of Joyce needing the presence of Tarrell. Even across the street from Joyce’s, the awning of the bodega is red, and the stairs beneath it are green. I saw in this the story of Joyce attempting to protect Tarrell as best she could through their drive to rise above. For me, the pinnacle of this color conversation was reached when Joyce, in her yellow pants, and Tarrell had their final conversation at the park. We had initially planned to shoot the scene elsewhere in the grass, but on the shoot day, when Titus noticed this green bench sitting in front of a red wall, just out there in the wild, we knew the scene had to happen there. 

PH: Creating a painting studio from an abandoned BUS station is a unique and fascinating choice. How did you approach transforming such a space to reflect Tarrell's artistic world, and how did Titus Kaphar's actual paintings become a part of the set design?

Olivia Peebles: Finding the studio was one of our biggest challenges: we needed the space to feel connected to Tarrell’s and Aisha’s home and to have the necessary architectural elements Titus and I wanted for Tarrell’s painting studio. We also needed it to be able to serve as Titus’ practical studio so he had a place to paint during production. We had scouted the exterior of Lackawanna Bus Depot for a scene that didn’t make the film and knew it was vacant, so we decided to look inside—maybe for use as set dec storage, maybe there would be something else inspiring, we really didn’t know. Once we were in, we found these raw spaces with incredible skylights just like the northern-facing windows Titus and I had been looking at in the studios of Dorothy Weir Young, Thomas Hart Benton, TC Steele, Cezanne, Charles Cecil, Renee and Chaim Gross, and photo studios of the turn of the century. The beams in the spaces at the station also echoed those of Tarrell’s living room and served as the perfect element with which I could integrate some Tarrell green.

We sat with the geography of Tarrell’s house for a while and determined that there was a direct match for the placement of the studio space on the property and figured out how it would connect to the house. Where Tarrell enters the studio from the house location actually leads to a giant room with an indoor pool. To tie the house and the studio together, we had to build out several elements that would transform this leaky, moldy, raw space at the station into a believable and functional studio that would feel connected to the design of the house. We achieved this, thanks to a gorgeous execution by my art director, Zebah Pinkham, by building a wall at the far end of the studio that housed windows that matched those at the location. We clad half the space in stained plywood to bring the natural warmth associated with Tarrell’s palette into the studio, and built out a desk in the recreational area, where we also housed drums, a punching bag, toys and children’s art supplies for Jermaine, and seating for guests. Titus plays the drums and boxes, and we liked the idea of integrating these other creative outlets into the studio for Tarrell and Jermaine, too. Eric Tumolo, my set decorator, did beautiful work in the space adding personal details like art books from Titus’ collection that showcase the work of his peers and influences. One of my favorite set dressing finds is Tarrell’s viewing chair, a turn-of-the-century horsehair armchair upholstered in linen that we sceniced to feel like it had been occupied countless times while Tarrell was covered in paint.

Once we had the set dressed, we moved Titus’ studio into the space, and the set came to life. Our scenic team, led by the fabulous Courtlan Green, had done tedious work to make the paint on the walls, floor, and surfaces feel authentic, matching colors from Titus’ work, and once those paintings entered the set, everything came together, and it felt real.

PH: The contrast between Tarrell's painting studio and La’Ron’s basement seems integral to depicting the characters' economic differences. Can you discuss your approach to designing these contrasting spaces and how they contribute to the narrative and character development? 

Olivia Peebles: Tarrell’s character built for himself the life that he wanted, perhaps needed, to move past the trauma of the wounds inflicted upon him by La’Ron. Titus’s script delicately investigates the layered complexities of the human experience; La’Ron’s basement space and the conversations that happen there reveal his flaws and his triumphs. Never in the film do we indulge in seeing the drug use or the violence, and it was essential to maintain that perspective with the La’Ron set. La’Ron’s space is one of practicality. It is a simple, almost ascetic space inhabited by a man whose lifestyle has limitations as far as what he has access to. He uses what is available to him, and his character is most present in the maintenance of the space. I wanted his environment to have an almost monastic quality but to remain grounded in reality with a life layer that embodies La’Ron’s character.

Finding it was tricky. Our priorities were the layout and access to natural light, but we needed to find the right tonal texture and depth, as well. The scene that takes place there is one of haunting intensity, and I wanted the space to be a stage for John Earl Jelks. I wanted the space to give us hints about his character but for it to really serve as a non-distracting arena for La’Ron’s monologue and Lachlan’s camerawork.

PH: Being a semi-autobiographical film, were there specific challenges or unique opportunities you encountered while designing sets for Exhibiting Forgiveness? How did you balance authenticity with creative interpretation? 

Olivia Peebles: Handling someone else’s story can be an intimidating undertaking. Again, the guiding force behind the design of these sets was the trust and language. I was so privileged to be able to establish with Titus and the entire team. Listening, questioning, and creating a safe space for open dialogue served as our foundation. I processed everything that Titus would share with me and asked him a lot of questions, and we pored over all the imagery I presented him. Once we established that we were on the same page, there was plenty of room for creative interpretation.

PH: Having worked in the art department for big films like Oppenheimer, Killers of the Flower Moon, and Hustle, how does your experience in the art department influence your work as a production designer, especially when working on projects with diverse genres and themes?

Olivia Peebles: Coming out of college, I wanted to be a painter. I didn’t know much about the film industry, or production design. To make some money to support my life as an artist, I wound up working for an incredible prop stylist named Jerry Schwartz, who happened to be my neighbor growing up in the Village. His focus was still photography—fashion shoots and editorial work—but it was my introduction to the idea that building worlds could be an actual career. Eventually, some friends of mine who had gone to film school asked me if I wanted to work on a project with them, and I thought, what a perfect way to blend this medium I am falling in love with with the art of film. After my first few projects, I was hooked. However it was important for me to fully understand every position in the art department and how it worked. Slowly, I began to learn the ins and outs of the department, and I knew that one day I wanted to be a designer. Over the course of a decade, I went from working in props to set decoration to designing. 

Working on films like Killers of The Flower Moon and Oppenheimer has had a massive influence on my work as a designer. Each time you work under a designer, you gain insight into the diversity of approaches there are when designing a film. From personal organization and taste or style to the varying levels of involvement or collaboration with different departments and ideas around running crews—there are myriad ways to design a film. With Killers of The Flower Moon and Oppenheimer specifically, and with brilliant minds like that of Jack Fisk, I learned to dream big. Anything is possible. But importantly, I also learned that though the work can be grueling at times, it should be fun. You should be able to feel the love for the craft, even when it’s hard to like it. Finally, I’ve always been a very research-based designer, but being period pieces, Killers and Oppenheimer both required careful study, often into largely unaccessible information. The strategies I picked up there have been cemented within me. 

PH: What role does research play in your design process, especially when creating sets for films that draw inspiration from real-life stories and locations? Are there specific research methods or sources that you find particularly valuable in your work? 

Olivia Peebles: Research is an integral part of my process. It’s the starting point. Different people see different things in image, which I find fascinating. Two people can look at the same image and read different stories into it, picking up on different details. It’s fun to go through photos with my team and talk about what we each see in a specific image. 

Research methods vary from project to project. For films like Killers of The Flower Moon, we relied heavily on archives. For Exhibiting Forgiveness, I researched a lot of contemporary spaces that required all sorts of resources. I started by looking into artist studios of folks like Noah Davis, Henry Taylor, Kerry James Marshall and Bill Traylor, amongst others. I found a great site called Avant Arte that has photos from the studios of many contemporary artists. I also tapped my friends, who are working artists, to help me hone in on a lot of realistic detail. I looked at the books of many of Titus’ contemporaries, such as Tavares Strachan, Terry Adkins, Jeffrey Gibson, Radcliffe Bailey, Amy Sherald and more. 

For spaces like La’Ron’s, I used a lot of real estate photos from the Kalamazoo, MI area, where Titus grew up. I looked at the work of photographers like Dawoud Bey, Tyler Mitchell, Alice Attie, Deana Lawson, Kwabena Sekyi Appiah, Schaun Champion, Camilo Jose Vergara, Patrick Joust and so many more for tonal inspiration. Often, I’m inspired by what I see around me, especially while scouting, so I’ll use a lot of my own photos as well. 

PH: The film features a variety of settings, from a contemporary painting studio to a lived-in basement. How do you ensure the authenticity and cohesiveness of your designs while representing different facets of the characters' lives?

Olivia Peebles: As I mentioned earlier, authenticity is important to me, which is why I’m so adamant about taking time for research. Character research evolves in conversation with the director and department heads, and visual reference is pasted everywhere in the office. I also like to make PDFs of the lookbooks for each set in script order so I can see how the colors flow over the course of the film as much as I can, ensuring some sort of visual cohesion.

PH: Looking ahead, are there specific types of projects or themes you are eager to explore in your future work as a production designer, and how do you envision your role evolving in the dynamic landscape of filmmaking?

Olivia Peebles: One thing I’ve learned over the years is the importance of finding like-minded collaborators who share a passion for the story we have united behind telling. This includes, but is not limited to, producers, directors and all department heads. I need to be excited not just by the writing but by the people who make the film and the creative spaces they occupy. Working with Titus, a painter and an artist, was a dream for me. I would love to continue working with visual artists in film, and am eager to explore a variety of themes and types of projects, as it is the diversity in experience that keeps us learning. 

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